Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the music progresses, we hear bird songs and the echoes of distant fanfares in the clarinets and offstage trumpets.

Mahler’s music speaks to us on a deeply psychological level, evoking complex, indescribable emotions. It embodies heroic struggle and can alternate between moments of transcendence and the vulgar street sounds of a bohemian village band. Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The sense of paradox in Mahler’s music is captured in a story of Mahler as a child, frequently running into the street to escape his father’s violent abuse of his mother, and suddenly being met with the cheerful sounds of an organ grinder.

The First Symphony grew out of Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a WayfarerIt was originally conceived as a five movement symphonic poem. Mahler later cut the second movement, Blumine, and dropped the subtitle, “The Titan”, which was a reference to a novel by Jean Paul. The piece requires a greatly expanded orchestra (seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba and an expanded woodwind and percussion section). At times, instruments are used in strange new ways, playing out of their normal range to create mocking, demonic sounds. In the second movement we hear the distinctive, raspy sound of stopped horns.

Mahler was a prominent conductor (and champion of Wagner’s operas) and his scores were meticulously marked with words and phrases intended to guide future interpreters. Common musical themes reappear throughout Mahler’s nine symphonies and in some ways these works can be heard as one massive symphony. The bewilderment of the audience at the 1889 premier in Budapest is a testament to the revolutionary nature of Mahler’s vision. The music would come to be embraced by audiences of the twentieth century. Today, performances of Mahler’s symphonies are often the dramatic high point of an orchestra’s season.

Here is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, performed by conductor Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Listen carefully to the distinct voices of the instruments (for example the horns at 10:44). What personas do they suggest? How does the final movement resolve the symphony as a whole?

  1. Langsam. Schleppend 00:00
  2. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 16:00
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen 22:48
  4. Sturmisch bewegt 33:28

Did you feel a sense of growing anticipation in the first movement? Go back and listen to the opening with those sustained “A’s” (the dominant in D major). It isn’t until around 4:06 that the music settles into a resolution in D major. We can relax and breathe easily. But at 7:59 we’re back where we started in the opening and this time it’s more ominous. All of the raw energy and tension, which has been building from the beginning, is released in one frighteningly explosive, but ultimately heroic climax towards the end of the movement (14:18). We’re left with crazy, giddy humor and a musical cat and mouse game in the final bars.

The Huntsman's Funeral
The Huntsman’s Funeral

The third movement was inspired by a children’s wood carving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, in which a torch-lit procession of animals carry the body of the dead huntsman. At the end of the movement, the sounds of the procession fade into the distance. You probably recognized the folk melody, Frère Jacques. Here it’s transformed into minor and played by the double bass, an instrument rarely featured in orchestral solos. Consider the persona of the double bass sound. The bizarre interjections of Jewish band music give this movement its ultimate sense of paradox and irony.

Opening amid a life and death struggle and ending in triumph, the final movement forms the climax of the symphony. Amid birdcalls, the bassoon recaps a familiar fragment (45:23) and for a moment we hear echoes of the first movement. The haunting motive from the opening of the first movement is transformed into a heroic proclamation in major. You may hear a slight, probably unconscious, similarity to Handel’s equally triumphant Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In the score, Mahler asks the seven horns to stand for the final statement of the theme, “so as to drown out everything…even the trumpets.”

For some interesting links, watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, Who is Gustav Mahler? and Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas.

 Recordings, old and new

There are many great recordings of this piece. Here are a few which I recommend. Share your favorites in the thread below.

The Sonic Landscapes of John Luther Adams

Composer John Luther Adams
Composer John Luther Adams

Become Ocean by John Luther Adams (b. 1953) has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. The large-scale work for orchestra was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Music critic Alex Ross attended the premier last June in Seattle. In Listen to This, Ross visits the composer’s home in Alaska. The remote Alaskan wilderness seems to be a strong influence in Adams’s music.

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony will perform Become Ocean in New York at Carnegie Hall on May 6 as part of the Spring for Music series.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Dark Waves[/typography]
Let’s listen to John Luther Adams’s 2007 tone poem, Dark Waves. Adams adds electronic sounds to the orchestra, creating gradually shifting sonic layers. Consider how the music is flowing. What images come to mind? Here is a live performance by the Chicago Symphony with conductor, Jaap van Zweden:

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Dark Waves suggests an almost physical sense of motion…the gradual, inevitable power of an endless series of waves cresting and breaking. For me the music is pictorial, like a slowly changing landscape. But, similar to Debussy’s La Mer, it evokes feelings rather than literal images. In the music of John Luther Adams, New Age meets Edgard Varèse and Morton Feldman.

[quote]Together, the orchestra and the electronics evoke a vast rolling sea. Waves of Perfect Fifths rise and fall, in tempo relationships of 3, 5 and 7. At the central moment, these waves crest together in a tsunami of sound encompassing all twelve chromatic tones and the full range of the orchestra.[/quote]

-John Luther Adams

Alaska

 

Mars, the Bringer of War

MarsThis evening you may want to grab your telescope, head outside, and look into the southeastern night sky. Mars is making its closest approach in six years today, coming within 57.4 million miles of earth. Last month, NASA’s Curiosity Rover captured pictures of the earth as a bright speck in the Martian sky.

From Ray Bradbury’s 1950 collection of short stories, The Martian Chronicles, to current discoveries of possible water on Mars, the red planet has long been a source of fascination. In ancient Roman mythology, Mars was the god of war. Astrological associations with Mars were the inspiration for the first movement of The Planets, Op. 32, a suite by English composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1935). Here is Mars, the Bringer of War performed by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony. Pay attention to the flow and rhythmic feel. Can you tell how many beats are in each measure? The answer may surprise you.

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Holst wrote this ominous music in 1914 at the onset of the First World War. It drives forward in an unrelenting 5/4 time (1-2-3-4-Five). It’s that last beat which makes the music feel slightly automated and unnatural, reflecting the blind insanity of a society marching towards self destruction. The opening of the piece calls for col legno, a sound effect in which the wood of the bow is hit into the strings. At 2:13 notice Holst’s use of the euphonium horn (tenor tuba). The trumpet fanfares which follow suggest the age-old sounds of battle.

Mars may have reminded you of the Imperial March from John Williams’ film score for Star Wars. Interestingly, both begin in the key of G minor, which has been associated with unease, conflict and tragedy going back to MozartThe Planets closes with the ethereal Neptune the Mystic . Compare Neptune to this excerpt from Williams’ 2001 film score for A.I. and consider all the other atmospheric Hollywood scores which draw upon these sounds.

[quote]Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.[/quote]

[quote]Do you ever wonder if–well, if there are people living on the third planet?’ ‘The third planet is incapable of supporting life,’ stated the husband patiently. ‘Our scientists have said there’s far too much oxygen in their atmosphere.[/quote]

-The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

When Less is More

UnknownThe best conductors know when to get out of the way. They have an intuitive sense for those rare moments when the music is cooking along on its own and they allow it to blossom. Expressive power grows from economy. The big gesture means more when it’s reserved for the right moment. On one level, conducting involves a mysterious “give and take” between the ensemble and the person on the podium. In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is defined as:

[quote]an object or type of material that permits the flow of electric charges in one or more directions. [/quote]

In many ways, a similar process is occurring with a musical conductor, except with a different type of energy.

Fritz Reiner, the legendary music director of the Chicago Symphony in the 1950s and 60s, was famous for a small beat pattern, as this excerpt of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony shows. In Chicago, the result was laser precision and attention to the smallest detail.

Recently, I ran across this humorous clip of Finnish conductor and composer (of 270 symphonies and counting), Leif Segerstam leading the Gothenburg Symphony in the Alla Marcia from Jean Sibelius’s Karelia Suite. Watch what Segerstam does around the 0:28 mark and listen to the joy and freedom in the sound and phrasing of the orchestra. It’s a great illustration of the power of trusting and letting go:

Five Musical Sunrises

images-35Natural cycles, from the change of seasons to the predictable routine of day turning to night, shape our sense of time. Can you imagine how our perception of time, and subsequently music, would be different without these events?

Nature’s visual grandeur has also been an inspiration to composers, especially the eternal drama of the sunrise. Here are five musical depictions:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet[/typography]

Haydn’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op.76, No.4 was not originally intended to evoke a sunrise. For Haydn this quartet, written in 1797 in the final years of his life, was pure music. The ascending opening passage later earned it the nickname, “Sunrise”. This expansive musical line has been called “one of the greatest openings in chamber music.” Listen to the way Haydn draws us into the piece and heightens our expectation. The second theme (1:09) reverses the opening motive with a descending line in the cello. In the development section, beginning at 4:24, notice how Haydn transforms the opening motive, suddenly shifting into minor. Can you hear when Haydn returns “home” at the recapitulation?

The last movement’s “Allegro ma non troppo” marking implies a tempo which isn’t too fast. But Haydn, the master of musical humor and surprise, does something interesting and unexpected with the tempo at the end.

This performance is by the Takács Quartet:

  1. Allegro con spirito (0:00)
  2. Adagio (8:15)
  3. Menuetto. Allegro (14:17)
  4. Finale. Allegro ma non troppo (18:29)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Prelude to Khovanshchina[/typography]

Modest Mussorgsky’s opera, Khovanshchina, tells the story of a violent and bloody episode in Russian history-the unsuccessful rebellion led by Prince Ivan Khovansky against Peter the Great and the subsequent mass suicide of Khovansky’s followers. Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was part of “The Russian Five,” a group of nationalistic Russian composers who aimed to promote their country’s unique musical identity.

The Prelude to Khovanshchina depicts dawn on the Moscow River. The music was orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Pay attention to the mix of orchestral colors and to the way the piece unfolds. How do these elements suggest a sunrise over calm, glistening water? Listen for the sound of church bells. Also, notice the quick ornamental notes in the melody (1:06), which give the music its distinctly Russian flavor.

Here is a 1997 recording of the Chicago Symphony with Sir Georg Solti:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Nielsen’s Helios Overture[/typography]

Helios was the living sun in Greek mythology. In his Helios Overture, Op. 17, Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) depicts sunrise as a gradual, unfolding process. The moment when night gives way to the first light of dawn is marked by a sliver of light on the edge of the eastern horizon. At the end of the day, the sun sinks back into the western horizon.

In the score Nielsen wrote:

[quote]Silence and darkness, The sun rises with a joyous song of praise, It wanders its golden way and sinks quietly into the sea.[/quote]

This is the Danish Radio Symphony conducted by Herbert Blomstedt:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Morning Mood from Peer Gynt[/typography]

Now let’s hear the famous first movement of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) Peer Gynt Suite, which also depicts a sunrise. This performance is by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The flute solo is played by James Galaway, who was principal flute in Berlin at the time of the recording. Listen to the dialogue between instruments. Each voice from the woodwinds to the horns has a distinct persona.

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As a professional orchestral musician, I consider myself lucky to be able to sit in the middle of the orchestra every day, surrounded by a rich collective sound. When I play this piece, I always listen for the magical moment at the end of this movement when the horn chords resolve into the final statement of the flute (3:20). The warm low strings and the shimmering flute create a unique musical mood.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Grand Canyon Suite[/typography]

Finally, let’s listen to a distinctly American musical depiction of a sunrise. The scene is Arizona’s awe-inspiring Grand Canyon. This is the first movement of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Here is some background on the piece, completed in 1931. This is a recording featuring the Detroit Symphony, led by conductor Antal Doráti:

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Musical Beginnings

Unknown-30Think about the way your favorite piece begins. From the ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which form the DNA for the entire symphony that follows, to the quiet, mysterious tremolos of Bruckner’s symphonies, to the attention grabbing (and audience quieting) opening fanfares of Rossini’s opera overtures, the way a piece starts tells us a lot about what will follow. As you jump, grudgingly tip toe or stride boldly into 2014, listen to three pieces with uniquely interesting openings:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4[/typography]

It’s hard to imagine a more powerful or majestic opening than the beginning of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069. The first movement is a popular Baroque musical form known as a French overture in which slow, stately music is contrasted with a faster section. This is an opening which demands that you listen. It emphatically celebrates D major, building tension and expectation as it develops. The other movements are rooted in Baroque dances. As you listen enjoy the way the music flows. This would have been popular music in Bach’s time-joyful, sparkling and fun:

  1. Ouverture 0:00
  2. Bourree 8:45
  3. Gavotte 11:29
  4. Menuet I/II 13:31
  5. Réjouissance 17:15

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Symphony that Starts With a Question[/typography]

You may hear the influence of Beethoven’s teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn in Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. At the same time, the young Beethoven’s individual voice is evident. This symphony begins with a question. Listen to the first chord. It seems to be saying, “Where am I?” Can you tell where the music is going next? The chord resolves, but we still feel lost. When and how does the music confidently move forward?

Beethoven starts the last movement with a similar musical joke up his sleeve. After a dramatic opening octave played by the entire orchestra, the music seems as if it isn’t sure what to do next. Beethoven gives us a tentative series of notes…then tries again, adding another…then another…a scale is forming…Then he says, “Oh yes, now I know!” What follows is one of the most enjoyable musical romps ever conceived:

  1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio 0:00
  2. Andante cantabile con moto 8:26
  3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace 14:50
  4. Finale: Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace 16:15

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Also sprach Zarathustra’s Unresolved Ending[/typography]

Our final “musical beginning” may be the most famous of all. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra) in 1896. The tone poem was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise. The opening depicts a musical sunrise. We not only hear but feel the pitch C, first as a deep, quietly ominous rumble in organ, basses, and contrabassoon and then expanding to other pitches built on the harmonic series (natural overtones). C, the purest key, with no sharps or flats is fixed in our ears, representing nature throughout Zarathustra. B with its five sharps (as far away from C as you can get, in terms of key relationships) represents the aspirations of man. The rest of the piece is a battle between C and B. Listen carefully at the end. Can you tell which key triumphs?

Here is a great recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony:

Did you hear the conflict at the end between B major in the highest instruments and C in the lowest? Nature has the last word, but in the end there is no satisfying resolution. In fact with Zarathustra, Strauss wrote a piece which ends in two keys at the same time. It’s a shocking and almost frightening ending, especially at a time (the late nineteenth century) when tonal relationships were beginning to slip away. In the twentieth century, after being pushed to the breaking point by composers such as Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, tonality would dissolve into the twelve tone rows of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and others. In twelve tone music there would be no hierarchical relationship between pitches.

Leonard Bernstein made a reference to the end of Zarathustra in the final chords of West Side Story. In contrast to Zarathustra, in West Side Story light wins out over darkness in the form of a major triad.

Conductor Marin Alsop offers additional thoughts about Zarathustra’s powerful opening here. Program notes for the entire piece are here.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What’s Your Favorite Musical Beginning?[/typography]

Now it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite “musical beginning?” Tell us about it in the comment thread below.

[quote]Life without music would be a mistake. -Friedrich Nietzsche[/quote]

The Unanswered Question

New England ChurchIn the virtual isolation of early twentieth century New England, an organist and insurance salesman named Charles Ives (1874-1954) was imagining shocking and innovative new music. Ives created atmospheric collages of sound. He poured fragments of American folk songs and other material into a musical melting pot to create an exciting cacophony. Much of his music became widely known only decades later when other composers embraced similar techniques.

Previously, we listened to Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day from Ives’s Holidays Symphony. Now let’s hear The Unanswered Question, written in 1908 and later revised. Ives described this piece as a “cosmic landscape.” As you listen, pay attention to three distinct and independent musical layers: the strings, the trumpet and the woodwinds. Which voice do you think is asking the question? What is the response? What do you think the question might be? What feelings does the music evoke?

I grew up listening to this great recording with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony. Close your eyes and become one with the sound, giving the music your full attention:

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Three simultaneous but contrasting realities exist in The Unanswered Question. The strings remain placid and unchanging throughout the piece with chorale-like music built on triads. The trumpet enters with an atonal statement which emerges from a completely different sound world. The woodwinds react, at first calmly and then with increasing agitation.

There are several ways of interpreting the question and its response and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts in thread below. The trumpet may be asking “The Perennial Question of Existence,” as Ives wrote. The woodwinds may be saying, “I don’t know!” with increasing impatience. Or maybe, as Ives suggests they begin to realize the futility of the question and start to mock it. The strings represent an eternal and unchanging reality. In the end, the question remains. It’s stated one final time by the trumpet as the strings’ G major chord fades into eternity.

These lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 poem, “The Sphinx” may have inspired Ives:

[quote]Thou art the unanswered question;
Couldst see thy proper eye,
Always it asketh, asketh;
And each answer is a lie.
So take thy quest through nature,
It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
Time is the false reply.
[/quote] 

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]From the Steeples and the Mountains[/typography]

Here’s another interesting piece by Charles Ives. In From the Steeples and the Mountains Ives musically depicts the glorious cacophony of church bells ringing out from various steeples and then echoing off the mountains. Listen to the way Ives creates a collage with layers of sound. You may also hear echoes of Taps. This is from a recent recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Christian Zeal and Activity[/typography]

Like Charles Ives, contemporary American composer John Adams (b. 1947) traces his roots to New England. Adams’s Christian Zeal and Activity seems to pay homage to The Unanswered Question, although it ends up going in a different direction. Adams uses the hymn tune, Onward , Christian Soldiers, but slows it down and alters it in a way similar to Ives. In an interview with Edward Strickland (American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music, pg. 185) Adams explains:

[quote]In any hymn the voices tend to move in blocks, so I went in and unhinged the hasps and let the four voices float in a dreamlike space so that they only rarely come together, and the effect was very beautiful. At moments it almost sounded like some unwritten Mahler adagio. I didn’t mean it to, but it just ended up sounding that way.[/quote]

Above these string lines, we hear the taped voice of an evangelist. Adams cuts up the tape and repeats fragments. His emphasis is on the expressive sound of the voice rather than the meaning. Listen to Christian Zeal and Activity and consider the ways it reminds you of the Ives. What emotional impact is created by the seemingly disparate combination of the strings and the recorded voice?

This is the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Edo de Waart:

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